PK Sreemathi looked completely exhausted when she ended the day’s electioneering at 10 pm on April 3. The 70-year-old Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate from Kannur Lok Sabha constituency in North Kerala, who is looking to retain the seat she won in 2014, had left home at 8 am. Over the course of the sweltering day, she addressed more than 20 street-side meetings and visited scores of homes. The hectic schedule had tired out her vocal chords and she struggled to speak during her last meeting of the day.

But she was remarkably cheerful when asked about how the constituency would vote. “I have no doubt about my victory,” she replied.

All the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies in Kerala go to poll on April 23.

Sreemathi is one of the two women candidates running on CPI(M) tickets in the Lok Sabha election. Veena George, who is contesting from Pathanamthitta, is the other.

The Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party aren’t doing much better in Kerala: each of them has two women candidates in contention. The Congress has nominated Shanimol Usman from Alappuzha and Ramya Haridas from Alathur, while the BJP has fielded Shobha Surendran from Attingal and VT Rama from Ponnani.

Sreemathi was the only woman Kerala sent to the Lok Sabha in 2014.

Shanimol Usman, the Congress candidate in Alappuzha, gets a hug. Credit: Shanimol Usman via Facebook

Abysmal record

Despite its high literacy rate and a balanced sex ratio, Kerala has been very conservative in electing women to Lok Sabha. Election Commission of India’s statistics show that Kerala’s women representation in Lok Sabha is below the national average.

In 2014, the Lok Sabha had 11.23% women (61 members out of 543) compared to Kerala’s 5% (one woman out of 20). In 2009, the Lok Sabha had 10.86% women (59 members out of 543) but Kerala did not elect a single woman.

This despite the fact that Kerala has more women voter than male ones. According to the Election Commission of India, Kerala has 25,408,711 voters out of whom 13,111,189 are women and 12,297,403 men.

The state has elected just 11 women in the 15 Lok Sabha elections held between 1957 (after Indian states were reorganised) and 2014.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has sent maximum number of women members to the lower house of Parliament (seven) followed by Congress (two) and the Communist Party of India (one).

Winnable candidates

According to the provisions of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010, 33% of all seats in the Lok Sabha and in all state assemblies should be reserved for women. However, the legislation never went to the Lok Sabha.

In the meantime, Sreemathi of the CPI(M) said she has been supporting the demand for parties to nominate larger numbers of women candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. “I am concerned with the low representation of women,” she said. “My party had planned to field three women candidates this time, but the number came down to two after plenty of deliberations. As a sincere party worker, my duty is to abide by the decision.”

She said parties only field candidates with a chance of winning, which is why the number of women candidates is decreasing. “CPI(M) backs 33% women representation in Lok Sabha and State assembly,” she said. “But we cannot take chances in an election.”

Sreemathi made a confident prediction: that both her party’s women candidates would win with huge margins. “Kerala will have two women members in the Lok Sabah this time,” she said.

Veena George is contesting from Pathanamthitta on a CPI(M) ticket.

Sreemathi is taking on senior Congress leader K Sudhakaran in a repeat of the 2014 election. In that poll, she beat him by a margin of 6,566 votes. The Bharatiya Janata Party is not a force to reckon with in Kannur.

She began her political career as an ordinary party worker in Kannur. She emerged as a top leader thanks to her organising and oratorical skills. She became the state’s health minister in 2006 before being elected to as Member of Parliament in 2014. She is a member of CPI(M)’s powerful Central Committee.

Women voters who are not aligned to any political party in Kannur say they want to see Sreemathi win.

Handloom worker T Sudha, 60, said Sreemathi has always stood for the welfare of handloom workers. “She has done a lot for us and I would like to see her victory,” she said. “I am supporting her not because she is a woman but because of her work.”

Down south in Pathanamthitta, the CPI(M)’s Veena George, who is involved in a three-cornered contest against Congress’s Anto Antony and BJP’s K Surendran, also said she was confident of victory.

George represents Aranmula in the State assembly. The journalist-turned-politician had sprung a surprise in 2016 when she defeated veteran Congress leader K Sivadasan Nair by 7,646 votes. The CPI(M) fielded George hoping that she will continue her giant-killing spree in Pathanamthitta, which onsidered to be a Congress stronghold.

She said echoed Sreemathi when she said that her party could not afford to take chances by fielding women candidates in a crucial election. “We will suffer huge electoral losses if we attempt to experiment,” said George. “We have fielded two women candidates and it does not mean that we are anti-women.”

In Central Kerala, Ramya Haridas, the Congress candidate in Alathur, has already impressed the electorate with her oratorical prowess – and singing. She is taking on two-time winner PK Biju of the CPI(M).

Haridas said the nation wants to see more women in the Lok Sabha and only the Congress can fulfil the aspiration. “Congress always supported higher women representation in Lok Sabha and Assembly,” she said. “For the time being, my aim is to win this seat and help Congress bring the legislation on women’s representation in Lok Sabha and legislative assembly.”

Handloom worker Sudha in Kannur. Photo TA Ameerudheen

‘We want more’

On the ground, some said they want to see more women in Parliament. Among them is Thankamani, 49, who runs a small pan shop in Cheruthoni in Idukki district. She wondered why political parties were ignoring women during the election. “All political parties need women to hold placards and flags during their marches,” said Thankamani. “But they will never give women their due.”

She added: “I would have definitely voted for a woman candidate, irrespective of her political affiliation, if there was one in Idukki constituency. I think women will be better law makers than men. In my constituency, the fight is between two men and I haven’t decided whom to vote for.”

But 70-year-old handloom worker K Narayani from Kannur did not agree that gender should play a part in political choices. She said she used to vote for political ideology and not for candidates. “Male or female, I don’t care,” she said. “My party candidate should win if the party’s ideology has to remain relevant. I will not change my voting preferences if our opponent fields a woman candidate.”

Blaming politicians

Young women voters believe that political parties in Kerala and elsewhere in India are male-driven organisations and will never give women their fair share of power.

“Power-hungry male politicians always undermine talented women,” said Athira Niranjan, a second-year psychology student at St Teresa’s College in Ernakulam. “Only bringing in a legislation can ensure adequate women representation in Parliament and Assmebly.”

But her classmate Mary Liya said that her voting choices are based on political ideology and not gender. In her constituency of Alappuzha, there is one woman candidate from the Congress, Liya said, but she does not share her political ideology is. “I will not vote for her, but I am worried about the low woman representation from Kerala,” said Liya.

Hana Shareen, another second-year student, said political parties have no moral right to seek women’s votes without giving them adequate representation. “Women can make a lot of difference in the political arena with their involvement,” she said. “Women should take a resolution that they will vote for political parties that give enough representation – at least the 33% – to women.”

‘Inherently patriarchal’

MT Narayanan, an associate professor in history at the Sree Sankaracharya University in Kalady and co-author of the book Democracy and Power: Electoral Politics in Kerala, agreed with the contention that political parties are inherently patriarchal. “The decision-making bodies of national political parties do not have adequate women representation,” he said. “That is why Kerala has sent only 11 women to Lok Sabha all these years despite high literacy rate and excellent sex ratio.”

Narayanan said it is time for Parliament to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. “Till then political parties will field fewer women candidates and women representation in the Lok Sabha will not go above 10% of the total seats,” he said.

Ramya Haridas, the Congress candidate for Alathur. Credit: Ramya Haridas via Faceebook

Sexist remarks

Even as the campaign is underway, women candidates have been the target of sexist taunts.

Last week, CPI(M) leader A Vijayaraghavan drew widespread criticism for making derogatory comments about Congress candidate from Alathur, Ramya Haridas. “The girl who is contesting from Alathur [a reference to Haridas] after filing nomination first rushed to Panakkad Syed Hyderali Shihab [Indian Union Muslim League chief] and later to meet PK Kunhalikutty [IUML leader and UDF candidate from Malappuram],” he said at a public meeting on April 1. “I don’t know what will happen to her now.”

His comments were an indirect reference to a sex scandal allegation, in which Kunhalikuty was an accused. Later, the charges against him were dropped.

Haridas took exception to the statement and filed a police complaint against Vijayaraghavan.

“It was part of a concerted attempt to tarnish my image,” Haridas said. “...People in Kerala will understand the ideological bankruptcy of CPI(M) leaders.”

Congress candidate from Kannur K Sudhakaran also drew criticism for producing a misogynistic campaign video and posting it on his Facebook, which apparently targets his rival Sreemathi. The video contained lines suggesting that “educating girls was a waste” and “only men could do things”.

On Friday, the Kerala Women’s Commission registered a case against Sudhakaran based on the media reports on the video. Sudhakaran has denied the charges.